The future of theatres

I sometimes think it would do Scottish theatre no harm if theatres were knocked flat, and companies consigned to school halls, car parks, and any other space that offered itself. – Joyce Mc Millan, 1982

Sparrows in a ploughed field.   Theatre patois for a small audience.  When we had audiences.

Theatre means hard work, but in my experience the toughest task is to be front-of-house – or backstage – when a mere dribble of people turn up to watch the show.  Apart from the loss at the box office, the dip in morale is palpable.  Just keeping people’s spirits up feels like a Herculean labour.

I was lucky.  This happened mercifully few times at the Citizens’, Glasgow.  And there were always better times to look forward to. Times when the house would be crammed. 

Now, there’s nothing much to look forward to.  We’re all at sea – theatre workers and audiences alike – lost, struggling to make sense of it all.  Just as nobody fully understands the virus, none of us knows quite how theatre will work in future.

Scottish comedienne Karen Dunbar has played every sort of venue – Celtic Park to the Tron.  I asked her what she’s working on now.  It’s probably going to be a one-woman show.  No’ me, the audience!

In Perm, Russia, that’s no joke.  In the 850-seater Opera and Ballet Theatre, the single winner of a lottery gets a private performance of Eugene OneginA novel way to keep the company performing, says the stage director, but financially catastrophic.  As for the performers, their temperatures are regularly checked and the premises disinfected.

In Germany, the State Theatre of Hesse, Wiesbaden held a performance with its audience correctly social distancing.  The 1000 capacity was cut to 200 people in alternate seats and rows.  The photo shows what sparrows in a ploughed field look like:

In trying to understand the significance of Covid-19, some look to past plagues, real and fictional.  In Japan they’re panic-buying Albert Camus’s novel, La Peste.  Many people latch on to the parallels between Covid-19 and the 1918 flu pandemic whose second wave (watch out!) was much deadlier than its first.

But, when it comes to grasping the full repercussions of our present plight, we might look to the Black Death of the mid-1300’s.  A recent New Statesman article sees it as the trigger of the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of the modern world.  Will this pandemic, it asks, remake the world as we know it?

Naturally we can’t know what that will look like, least of all in those areas of our lives dependent on close, numerous and simultaneous congregation of human beings.

Playhouses date from the late 1500’s.  Last week, London’s earliest purpose-built theatre – the Red Lion (1567) – was unearthed, in Whitechapel.  Scotland was a bit later to the game. Its first public theatre wasn’t opened until 1736. 

So, buildings are not the whole history of the theatrical age.

Theatre (literally, a place for looking), in western civilisation, goes back to Greece in the fifth century B.C.  We’ve been at it for over 2500 years!

Theatre seems bound to continue as long as people want to tell stories and act them out to their fellow human beings.  We probably couldn’t stop it even if we tried. 

I feel sure that those who yearn to create and present drama in Scotland – and the rest of the world – are bursting with enough imagination, ingenuity, insight, inspiration, intellect, intelligence and intuition to make it happen – in any circumstances.

For now, Scottish theatres are straining to withstand the crisis.  Several, including the Lyceum, Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Tron have cancelled their 2020 Christmas shows (the most lucrative production).  The Lyceum, Pitlochry Festival Theatre and others are hoping to hold on to some key roles, but are planning redundancies to keep their operations from going under.

These venues are echoed by others on the cusp of collapse.  They are appealing to governments, local authorities and the public to provide funds to keep them alive. 

But – until somebody can devise practical steps to get actors and audiences back together again – such moves are essentially defensive.

The Citizens’ is in a peculiar position.  Homeless while the Gorbals venue undergoes a massive rebuild (itself delayed until building sites resume), they can’t even produce in their temporary berth, Tramway.

Let’s hope the pleas for funding are met so that the Lyceum, Tron, Pitlochry and other companies can stay alive, at least.  Let’s hope the Citizens’ completes its project to renovate and restore that people’s palace of pleasure. They’ve started, so they’ll finish.

But it does raise the question – would you begin a new building project now?  The King’s Edinburgh refurb is on hold.  As for a new venue, who’d be bold enough to create one when we’ve no idea how audiences and actors are going to be able to reassemble in the world to come? 

If you were setting up a company today, wouldn’t you just focus on production – writing, directing and acting – and then work out the best form to deliver your ideas? 

It makes the National Theatre of Scotland’s founding motto, Theatre Without Walls, seem more prescient than anyone imagined.  The title of its current streaming sessions, to raise funds, is just as apt: Scenes for Survival.

Scenes for Survival involve, amongst others, Aberdeen Performing Arts, the BBC, the Citz, Scottish Screen, Stellar Quines and Summerhall; actors Kate Dickie, Janey Godley, Brian Cox, Peter Mullan and Jonathan Watson; writers Jenni Fagan, Frances Poet and Stef Smith and directors Cora Bissett, Debbie Hannan and Caitlin Skinner. 

Other virtual programming includes Oran Mor’s mini-series of plays; the Traverse’s young writers’ work, workshops and 5 monologues swiftly adapted from the cancelled Donny’s Brain; The Scotsman Sessions ofshort video performances and Rapture Theatre’s Mini Bites.

There’s loads more.  The immediate recourse has been to deliver online, hastily put together in an urge to get some product out there.  Hasty can be good, not least when all sorts of people are unexpectedly available!  And it proves how ingenious theatre practitioners can be in testing conditions. 

The quality of this material, mostly monologues shot in limited conditions, could be improved with time, work and substantial start-up funding. 

Longer term, it can’t just be a filmed version of whatever is – or would have been – on stage, nor just more screen product.  It needs sensitive understanding of the interaction between the live and the recording.

The screening of theatre is not, of course, a substitute for the full-on live theatre experience – everybody together in the same space, at the same time, responding to the same atmospherics.

Some other questions arise from our current state.

First, should the artist should come before the edifice?  Creativity first, institutions second?  It’s understandable that organisations will look for funding to shore them up until things get back to normal.  But, even if that’s possible, normal means the practitioner in the performing arts is poorly rewarded and precariously employed.

Should this be a time to reassess, to find ways that artists no longer exist on a shoestring? 

The furlough scheme is, for now, some kind of security blanket for staff, but hardly any performers or freelancers get help.  Who always gets left out in the cold?  As support for actors, writers and other creatives diminishes, so we risk the diversity of people making the work and the richness of the stories being told.  In other words, it’s the art, the theatre’s imaginative heart, that suffers most.

Second, is a fallow period such a bad idea?  As theatres closed and the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe were cancelled, there was a genuine cry of loss.  Of course, everything must be done to preserve, even strengthen, what we had.  But is it heresy, from an artistic point of view, to suggest that producing nothing for, say a year or more, is not the end of the world?  

Naturally we don’t want anyone to starve.  It seems to me that the case for a Universal Basic Income is becoming unanswerable (though don’t expect the Tories to agree).

Things are bound to change.  I suppose the question is who wins the struggle between those trying to restore the old, unequal norms and those of us who view this as a chance for renaissance?

It’s hard to see how we’ll get a new system without a struggle.  Will protest give rise to new forms of theatre?

It also helps to keep a sense of global perspective.  In countries less affected than the UK, is the resumption of live performances with large audiences only a matter of time?

The whole Coronavirus saga might just be a one-off and our return to normal a few months away.

Alternatively, we could be in the early stages of an epoch-changing event which will keep venues closed for a long time to come.

The Thatcher virus reduced Scotland’s industrial monuments to rusting, useless shells.  Will Corona (or whatever economic chaos, environmental calamity or further pandemic follows) do the same to our cultural infrastructure?

Armageddon outta here!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, June 2020.

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